FORT WORTH, TexasLockheed Martin [LMT] plans to turn out its 1,000th F-35 fighter by the end of this year on the one-mile, 20-foot-long assembly line here at Air Force Plant 4 from which planes have rolled off since the B-24 Liberator bomber in 1942.

The F-35 production process is a complex, interwoven one that depends upon the contributions of at least 1,650 suppliers–about 1,000 small businesses and other contractors, including Northrop Grumman

[NOC] for the center fuselage and BAE Systems for the aft fuselage.

While 30,000 workers here churned out planes during WWII, the Lockheed Martin Fort Worth presence still counts about 17,000, including 2,774 F-35 touch labor mechanics represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) District 776, which ratified a new four-year contract with Lockheed Martin on April 24th last year.

The union local said that the contract contains a 16 percent general wage increase over the life of the F-35 contract, cost-of-living increases, and improved benefits. The contract also covers IAM members at Edwards AFB, Calif., and Patuxent River, Md., the union local said.

On Dec. 30 last year, Lockheed Martin said that the F-35 Joint Program Office and the company had finalized a Lot 15-16 contract that may be worth $30 billion to build and deliver up to 398 F-35s domestically and internationally–145 aircraft for Lot 15, 127 for Lot 16, and up to 126 for the Lot 17 contract option, including the first F-35 aircraft for Belgium, Finland and Poland (Defense Daily, Jan. 10). Those lots are to include Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3), powered by the L3Harris [LHX] integrated core processor.

F-35 program officials have described TR-3 as  the computer “backbone” for Block 4, which is to have 88 unique features and integrate 16 new weapons on the F-35, which became operational in July 2015.

Early last month, Lockheed Martin resumed deliveries of the F-35 after a halt that began after the pilot of a Lockheed Martin-owned F-35B ejected on the runway at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas last Dec. 15

At the time of the delivery resumption, the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) said that it had directed a fleetwide retrofit for F-35As, Bs, and Cs to mitigate any future “harmonic resonance”–a higher than normal engine vibration that may increase stress on the fighter’s Raytheon Technologies‘ Pratt & Whitney [RTX] F135 engine (Defense Daily, March 2). It appears that the “harmonic resonance” affected a low number of fighters with fairly new F135s.

That “harmonic resonance” appears to be a blip in the F-35 chronicle, however.

“We just crossed 900 airplanes delivered,” Edward “Stevie” Smith, Lockheed Martin’s director of F-35 domestic business development and a retired Navy F/A-18 pilot, said here on Apr. 12. “We should hit 1,000 at the end of the year–another great milestone for the program.”

While the spacious plant floor did not seem crowded during a reporter’s Apr. 12 8:30 a.m. to noon visit, that may belie the three shifts of workers around the clock and the various break times. In addition, automation is at play. For example, automated drilling bores 17,000 of the 42,000 holes on the F-35’s outer mold line, said Steve Howes, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of F-35 production operations.

U.S. materiel support to Ukraine to support its effort to repel the Russian invastion has led DoD to emphasize surge capacity.

Flag officers who visit the F-35 plant often ask about the maximum number of F-35s that Lockheed Martin could produce in a short amount of time, Howes said.

That number likely depends on funding. Another important factor is a timely negotiation of contracts with the government, and the lack of timely negotiation contributes to spare parts shortages, Howes said. “I need every single part,” he said, when asked which ones the assembly line especially needs.

Last August, after three years of negotiations, Lockheed Martin received a more than $7.6 billion DoD contract for 129 F-35 fighters in Lot 15–49 F-35As for the U.S. Air Force; three F-35Bs and 10 F-35Cs for the U.S. Marine Corps; 15 F-35Cs for the U.S. Navy; 32 F-35As and four F-35Bs for non-DoD “participants”; and 16 F-35As for Foreign Military Sales customers (Defense Daily, Aug. 12).

Work is expected to finish on Lot 15 in October 2024.

17 countries participate in the F-35 program, and the Czech Republic and Greece may become the newest buyers. The three latest countries to announce contract signings are Finland in February last year, Switzerland last September, and Germany last December.

The F-35 “has seen operations in every operational theater,” Smith said on Apr. 12. “The [U.S.] Air Force [in 2021] completed an almost 18-month continuous footprint in the CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] AOR [Area of Responsibility] flying the airplane in that traditional mission set. What was great about that is they could load the plane for bear for an Iraqi, an Afghanistan, or Syria-type mission, come back, down load those bombs, take the pylons off and then fly in a very stealthy configuration to gather information on some other countries of interest.”

“As we’ve dialed back that footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan–they were putting a lot of hours on the airplanes as well, they got a lot of learning during that period, and they said, ‘Hey, we’ve really got to be gearing up for that high end fight,'” he said.

Smith said that the F-35 “is a multirole strike fighter, and, even more than that, one of the superior electronic warfare platforms out there, whether that’s sensing or kinetic effects/electronic attack.”